James Madison’s football team averaged 275 rushing yards per game in 2016 en route to winning the Football Championship Subdivision title, followed by averages of 194.3 yards in 2017 and 183.3 the next year under guidance from head coach Mike Houston and offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick.
It might be difficult for East Carolina to match that kind of production this year, but the Pirates’ preseason has featured moments of optimism that they have layers of quality depth in the backfield.
“If one guy has a bad day, I promise you somebody else is going to have a great day,” said Houston, whose Pirates finished at 141.3 rushing yards per outing last year in Houston’s debut season in Greenville. “It’s made it where you have to bring it every single day in that room. If you don’t bring it, you are going to stick out or not stick out when others do.”
Opponents averaged 207.8 rushing yards per game versus ECU last season.
The current Pirates are working toward conducting a scrimmage later in the week.
Their last scrimmage, held Aug. 14, featured freshman Keaton Mitchell bouncing to the outside and using his speed for a 94-yard touchdown run. Mitchell and fellow freshman Rahjai Harris, who went to South Carolina powerhouse high school Byrnes, are key players in the Pirates’ plans for greater depth.
Harris’ prep career included rushing for 300 yards and four touchdowns against Gaffney.
There also is Arkansas transfer Chase Hayden, a 5-foot-10, 210-pound junior in his first year at ECU. He already has high-level experience from playing in the Southeastern Conference and is competing with Pirate returnees Darius Pinnix, Demetrius Mauney, Trace Christian and others.
ECU’s leading rusher in 2019 was then-freshman Mauney, who carried the ball 125 times for 446 yards for an average of 3.6 yards per rush.
Phil Steele’s College Football Preview Magazine ranks East Carolina’s running back unit tied for eighth among the American Athletic Conference’s 11 teams. Memphis is first, followed by Navy and UCF.
“I’m pleased with our older guys and pleased with our younger guys,” Houston said. “The thing about depth at that position is it’s allowing us to get those guys more involved in special teams. That group had a very solid week (last week).”
Pirate quarterback Holton Ahlers was the team’s rushing touchdown leader a year ago with six, two more than four by Pinnix. Ahlers heads into his junior campaign, which kicks off Sept. 26 against UCF at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, with 12 career rushing touchdowns and 33 passing TDs with 13 interceptions.
When asked about ECU’s potential depth and specifically using three main running backs, Houston referenced the JMU 2016 squad. Khalid Abdullah paced the Dukes with 1,809 yards, but three other players also had at least 550 rushing yards for the season.
“You’d like to have that three-headed monster where you have guys that you can keep fresh,” Houston said. “That’s ideal. I think we have the opportunity to possibly have that this year.”